Las Vegas celebrated the inaugural Global Meetings Industry Day (GMID) on April 14 with a panel discussion at MGM Resorts International’s brand-new T-Mobile Arena. Moderated by Rossi Ralenkotter, president and CEO of the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority (LVCVA), the event featured a keynote address from Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, followed by a conversation among top executives from the city’s four main resort operators.

Introductory remarks came from Chris Meyer, vice president of global business sales for the LVCVA, who proudly announced Las Vegas as “the meetings capital of the world.” Ebullient, too, was Dow, whose leadership of the Meetings Means Business coalition has elevated awareness of the economic value of meetings to the global level.
“I get first choice of where I am going to be,” said Dow in his address, “and if I am going to be anywhere, it’s going to be Las Vegas.”

Customers are equally enthusiastic. Last year, Las Vegas attracted a record 42.3 million visitors, including nearly 6 million attendees—or “participants” in the new vernacular—to nearly 22,000 meetings, incentives, tradeshows and conventions. Las Vegas also celebrated its 22nd consecutive year as America’s tradeshow darling, hosting 54 of the country’s largest shows by net square footage last year.  

As “participation” continues to rise, so does proof of the business power of meetings. From $6.7 billion in 2012 and $7.4 billion in 2014, meetings generated $9 billion in total economic output for Las Vegas last year.

Dow also remarked that, “What happens in the meetings industry, happens in Las Vegas, and then keeps coming back to Las Vegas.”

The swagger is back—but there is no time for complacency.

Show Business

Opened just eight days before GMID with a concert by hometown favorites The Killers and Wayne “Mr. Vegas” Newton—plus two sold-out Guns N’ Roses shows in between—the new 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena perfectly illustrates how Las Vegas is reshaping itself for the future.

Newton, who has a new show at Bally’s Las Vegas, represents a rare link to yesteryear Vegas. Another is Tony Bennett, who after helping celebrate the occasion of Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday last December at the Encore Theater in Wynn Las Vegas, celebrated his 90th birthday last month at MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mostly, though, Las Vegas is leaving the past (even Elvis is reportedly on the wane) behind for a revolutionary new tomorrow.

On the outside, the arena’s 200-foot video mesh wall boldly advertised the GMID event. Inside, it served as the backdrop, along with MGM’s New York-New York and Monte Carlo resort-casinos, for the afternoon’s discussion. Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd of some 250 local meetings and hospitality professionals, suppliers, media and other participants, the quartet of top resort executives discoursed on a range of topics.

Competitors they may be, but each understands the challenges—and opportunities to work together—to keep Las Vegas ahead.

“Demand is as high as it’s ever been, going back to pre-recession days,” said Chuck Bowling, president and COO of Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino. Bowling, who also serves as the LVCVA’s vice chairman and has been instrumental in leading the city’s tradeshow business, added that while peak season “used to be a January through May conversation,” meetings are now “a year-round business.”  

Another trend inspiring hotel growth is the current supply and demand equation.

“Outside of Las Vegas, we know that 3 million more group room nights were produced in the U.S. in 2015 over the peak year of 2006,” Bowling said. Within this context, “70 percent of new supply coming into the U.S. market over the last two years and the next two years is limited service, with little meeting space. This provides an incredible opportunity for all of us here to cement and grow Las Vegas as the number-one meetings market. That’s why we are investing and doubling down now.”

Adult Education  

In his keynote, Dow noted that while “meetings alone bring $114 billion to our economy, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to what happens in these meetings.”

In Vegas especially, that means serious trade generated by blockbuster shows like CES and CONEXPO-CON/AGG.

In the new meetings paradigm, engagement, interaction and learning are the new measures of ROI and success. Chandra Allison, vice president of sales for The Venetian and The Palazzo, sees this trend having a “fascinating” effect on meeting design.

“Where it used to be just about a general session, it’s now about popping up interactive events and sharing spaces where people can actually collaborate and engage and talk among themselves and learn through conversation,” Allison said, noting that “attendee” is a thing of the past.

“We are hearing from all of our tradeshow, meeting and event customers that the new term is ‘participant,’” she continued, noting that for Millennials especially, customized and personalized solutions are key. “They are not just there to listen, but to participate, engage and be part of the conversation, and so we need to speak to them in a way that is meaningful for them.”

Michael Massari, senior vice president for national meetings and events at Caesars Entertainment, challenged the myth of the disconnected Millennial.

“They get a rap for not being interested in face-to-face interaction, but they completely understand and value the two-way piece,” he said. “I’m not certain it’s different for any generation.

“While meeting planning has always been about creating interaction so you don’t lose people,” he continued, “the hardest challenge for planners today, I believe, is engaging all participants across the entire spectrum of age, background and demographics.”

 In Allison’s view, “investing in the full life cycle of a participant” is one approach.

“It’s about engaging participants throughout the entire process, from the time they register, or even prior to that, to when they leave the meeting,” she said.

Millennials especially, continued Allison, “use face-to-face meetings to learn, to talk to people, and to understand new things, including industry insight and potentially even job opportunities. So we speak to them differently through social selling, content, bespoke events and other ways that really talk about our capabilities.”

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Tech Talk

From its role in facilitating—or impeding—conversation and interaction to keeping Las Vegas ahead of the competition, answering the call of technology is a strategic imperative.
“Technology becomes more and more important as time goes on,” said Chris Flatt, executive vice president of hotel sales and marketing for Wynn Resorts. “In Las Vegas, one advantage is that we are new and can keep our technology infrastructure as current as possible.”

Balancing face-to-face interaction with technology is one challenge she sees; another is adapting to continual change.

“It’s expensive and hard to stay current, but it’s the way we have to live going forward,” Flatt said. “It’s incredibly important to listen to our customers and try to deliver what they need.”

Continuing Internet and infrastructure investments are keeping Las Vegas ahead of the competition, with the Las Vegas Convention Center and Sands Expo among venues that have recently completed industry-leading bandwidth and Wi-Fi upgrades. Currently among the fastest growing markets in the U.S., the technology sector also powers convention business, such as CES, the city’s biggest show.

With a long-range goal of increasing international travel to 30 percent of its visitation mix, the LVCVA is tapping into virtual reality to market Las Vegas to the world, including the Vegas VR virtual reality app introduced in April.

“For example, the LVCVA debuted a Virtual Reality Companion App during the ITB Travel Trade Show in Berlin that helps transport potential visitors to Las Vegas through a series of immersive 360-degree videos featuring Las Vegas attractions,” said Cathy Tull, the LVCVA’s senior vice president of marketing. “The app pairs with display tools like the Oculus Rift or Google Cardboard to help users explore Las Vegas in a virtual setting and gain excitement for a future trip.”

This October, participants at IMEX America 2016 in Las Vegas can engage with ground-breaking virtual and augmented reality solutions in the bureau’s new display booth. Other solutions include the bureau’s online 360-degree GeoVegas tool.

Might virtual reality and other technologies interfere with the face-to-face movement? In Massari’s view, shared by Allison, no. “We should embrace, not fear, all of those technologies,” he said, “because they enhance—not threaten—what we do.”  

Front Running

This October, right in the middle of IMEX America 2016, the final debate of the 2016 presidential election will be held at the Thomas & Mack Center on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) campus.

“We will be at the center of the world for that week, with an anticipated five- to six- thousand media in town,” said Ralenkotter, pointing to the debate as more evidence that business does get done in Las Vegas.

Or as bid committee member Billy Vassiliadis, CEO and principal of R&R Partners, the LVCVA’s advertising agency, said in an interview, “It’s a heck of a validator in terms of the evolution of Las Vegas.”

Throughout its fabled history, Las Vegas has cycled through boom and bust on the strength of continual reinvention. In this latest incarnation, the city’s maturity as a business destination may just be its most enduring foundation yet.

For anyone holding on to old perceptions that conventioneers and other delegates skip meetings to gamble and stay out all night, think again.

“When you look at all these major citywide conventions and meetings that come to Las Vegas, they are here with their customers to do business,” said Flatt, pointing to rising attendance numbers as statistical proof. “This is a serious place to come and do business.”  

For all of Vegas’ seemingly unstoppable momentum and preeminence in meetings, however, all panelists agreed that this is no time for complacency. The exuberance is there—but hard lessons learned from the meltdown are making for more rational thinking this time around.

“We have come a long way since the recession,” Bowling said, “and I think it’s more and more important that we continue to create great value for people that want to come to Las Vegas.”

Maintaining the city’s singular status and reputation “is predicated on our ability to execute the most difficult meetings in the world,” Caesars’ Massari said. “As long as we can continue to do that, and do that well, and never take our foot off that gas pedal, I don’t think there will be a problem.”